CM: How did you balance writing your first novel with getting your PhD in law at Cambridge University?
JM: I wrote most of Feeling Sorry for Celia very late at night. I didn’t have a computer then, so I would walk to the university computer room in the moonlight. Sometimes there would be other students working or chatting in there so it was like writing in the company of strangers. And if I needed inspiration I could eavesdrop on their conversations. When my PhD was finished, I spent a week in a cottage in Cornwall and finished the book.
CM: Did studying law influence you as a writer?
JM: I like the multiple layers of story behind cases, and I found legislation weirdly inspirational. It always seemed like a treasure hunt to me. Precision of language is hugely important in law (e.g. you would never say in a legal document that something was ‘weirdly inspirational’ or ‘hugely important’), and I think law helped me to think in a clearer and more structured way, which was good for my chaotic mind.
CM: Where did you get the inspiration for Feeling Sorry for Celia?
JM: When I was in high school, a friend of mine switched to a different school and we decided to keep in contact by writing letters to each other. We kept writing all through university, and we used to share secrets in our letters, and try to make each other laugh. We became very close as a result. (My friend wanted to be an artist so her letters were better than mine: they included beautiful illustrations.) (She is now a successful artist who exhibits her work all over the world.) So I liked the idea of a book about a female friendship that builds through letter-writing.
CM: Do you have a favorite character in the series? Who was the easiest point of view to write? The most difficult?
JM: I think Lydia is my favourite character because I like her edginess and her intensity. Emily and Bindy are both close seconds though, and those two were definitely the most fun to write. They just walked onto the page and started talking. I didn’t have to do anything.
Even though she was my favourite character, Lydia was sometimes the most difficult to write because I knew what was going on in her head, but I also knew she would never let anybody hear that: she would hide behind her persona. So I had to keep reminding myself not to give away what she was thinking.
CM: What is something you want readers to take away from your Ashbury/Brookfield series?
JM: I like it when readers write to me to say they’ve been sending letters to their friends since reading the books. But I didn’t realize that would happen when I wrote them. I was most interested in the importance, and beauty, and complexities of friendship, especially friendship between girls.
CM: Were you surprised by the success of Feeling Sorry for Celia? Did that success add pressure while you wrote your next book?
JM: I was so amazed to be published at all that I thought it must be an elaborate hoax. Even when the book was in the shops, I thought someone was playing a giant trick on me. I was still in this strange daze while I wrote the next book (The Year of Secret Assignments, which is Finding Cassie Crazy in Australia and the UK). Also, I was still working as a lawyer at that time so writing the book seemed more like a game I was playing in my spare time.
CM: When you first sent Feeling Sorry for Celia to agents in London, how did you handle those rejections, and what advice do you have for writers experiencing rejection from agents and publishers?
JM: I cried every time I got a rejection letter. It was ridiculous. But healthy! And then I tore the letters into tiny shreds. My advice for writers experiencing rejection is to cry a bit, because crying is healthy, like I said. I don’t know if I advise you to tear the letters to shreds because you might want to keep them to post pictures of them online when you are a huge success? But tearing them was a great, symbolic gesture and helped me leave them behind and move on to trying again.
CM: Did your time in Cambridge influence A Corner of White?
JM: I wanted to set A Corner of White partly in the real world and partly in the Kingdom of Cello. For the three years that I lived there, Cambridge was a magical place to me: gardens, trees, history, ghosts, strange traditions, strawberries-and-champage-while-punting-down-the-river, owls in trees, deer in the garden, and so on. So it seemed like the obvious location for a crack through to an imaginary kingdom.
CM: Was it easy or difficult to switch from writing contemporary fiction to fantasy?
JM: At first it was difficult. I read a lot of fantasy, and tried a lot of different approaches before I found my voice. And that only happened when I realized that I wanted to write contemporary fiction as fantasy: I mean, I wanted the characters to be as real and emotionally complex as I had tried to make them in my other books.
CM: Why do you frame much of your writing through the exchange of letters?
JM: It’s a strange addiction of mine. I don’t mean to do it, but letters keep turning up in my books. I think they give me the immediacy of first-person narrative at the same time as the control of an omniscient narrator. And I love the combination of intimacy and unreliability, especially when there are multiple, intersecting, unreliable correspondents.
CM: Do you have a favorite (or least favorite) book cover?
JM: I’ve liked them all. I think the first one I really loved was the Australian edition of I have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes because they used an antique picture of a hot air balloon from a tiny book I had found in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. I also loved the atmospheric magic of the US edition of The Spell Book of Listen Taylor. But my new favorite is definitely A Tangle of Gold. The designer, Elizabeth Parisi, has used a photograph taken by Matt Molloy, who has stacked together hundreds of shots of a sunset. The picture is beautiful and looks exactly the way I imagine the Farms in the Kingdom of Cello during a Colour storm.
CM: Do you have a person you usually share your work with first?
JM: My sister, Liane Moriarty. I’m also usually her first reader. Another author sister, Nicola Moriarty, is also one of my first readers.
CM: What (fiction) books have shaped you as a writer and what did they teach you?
JM: My favourite books as a child included The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, and all the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers. They probably shaped me into the kind of writer who is obsessed with magic at the edges of reality. As an adult, the books of John Marsden, Carol Shields and Elizabeth McCracken were all turning points for me as a writer. When I read John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside, I was astonished at his ability to get into the head of a teenage girl. Then it occurred to me that I was once a teenage girl myself. At that point I’d started writing Feeling Sorry for Celia four or five times, and it still wasn’t working. I realized I’d been observing my teenage characters from a distance. Now I tried putting myself inside the heads of all the characters, and at last it came to life for me. And I love the Carol Shields and Elizabeth McCracken books for their verve and vitality, and for immersing themselves, unapologetically, in the lives and minds of women.
CM: What’s your favorite fairy tale?
JM: I don’t know, fairytales always make me feel so uneasy. People breaking rules and then getting punished. I get distressed when people break the rules, and I don’t believe in punishments. It seemed ridiculous to me that anybody should be expected to guess the name Rumpelstiltskin, I was very upset by the idea of Rip Van Winkle and the Sleeping Beauty missing out on so much life, and the idea of someone climbing up Rapunzel’s ponytail made my head hurt. Also, I was never one of those girls who dreamed of weddings and handsome princes so the pay-off was never enough for me.
If I could just take out pieces of fairytales, I like the idea of that gingerbread house with all the candy on it very much. And I’m keen on elves doing the work for me while I sleep.
CM: What do you like about writing young adult fiction that is different than writing adult fiction?
JM: I like young adults. They seem more honest, passionate, hopeful and complex than adults.
CM: How do you think you’ve grown as a writer after writing nine books?
JM: I expect I overthink things now. I’m trying to get back to the pleasure of invention with my latest books.
CM: Some of your siblings are also authors. Do you ever trade manuscripts? Would you ever consider collaborating?
JM: Two of my sisters, Nicola and Liane Moriarty, are also authors. We are very close, we definitely trade ideas and manuscripts, and we talk a lot about collaborating. I’m sure we will do something one day. We can get competitive about using family anecdotes in our writing.
CM: Is it difficult to balance being a mother with being an author?
JM: I just asked my 9-year-old if he thinks it’s difficult for me to balance being a mother and an author, and he said an emphatic, ‘No’. He seemed to find the question astonishing.
Sometimes I’m nearly finished a book and all I want to do is write, and that seems to be exactly when my son gets a bad cold and has to stay home from school. But often when that happens I find myself coming up with better ideas for the resolution of the book, and I’m glad I spent the day hanging out with the boy rather than writing. It’s also a perfect job because I can take the time to be with the boy when he needs me. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer any more.
CM: Do you ever worry that your son won’t grow up to be a reader?
CM: That’s a funny question, and yes! I do worry about that! But only because reading gives me so much pleasure and escape and I wouldn’t want him to miss out on that. On the other hand, some people lead perfectly happy lives without being readers, so it won’t be the end of the world if he isn’t. (So far he does love reading and it’s a beautiful thing to me, to see him lying on the couch, turning pages. I also like it when he reads when we’re out in a cafe and other people say to me, ‘Oh, how wonderful to see a child reading!’ Then I feel like a proud mother.)
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
JM: Read in all sorts of different directions, from poetry to history to science to sci-fi. And try writing in all sorts of different directions too.
CM: What do you think new writers need to know about publishing?
JM: Maybe that publishers cannot guarantee a book’s success, no matter how much they believe in the book.
CM: Do you have any novels planned for after the Colours of Madeleine series?
JM: I am working on a book about a girl whose parents left her with an aunt when she was a baby, so they could go away and have adventures with pirates. Now they have sent her instructions requiring her to deliver treasure to her ten other aunts. I’m also working on a novel for adults about a woman who signs up for a self-help course that promises to teach her to fly. And a new Ashbury-Brookfield novel about Emily’s younger brother, William.
Jaclyn Moriarty is the award-winning author of The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, The Ghosts of Ashbury High, The Spell Book of Listen Taylor, and the Colors of Madeleine trilogy. She grew up in Sydney, Australia, studied law at Yale and Cambridge, and then turned to writing. Jaclyn now lives back in Sydney with her little boy, Charlie. She is very fond of chocolate, blueberries, and sleep.